How to License a Food Business

A Step by Step Guide


In this guide, we will take you through the requirements your business must meet to legally sell your products to customers.  One point of note is that the content in this post is specific to Washington, DC, and each state has its own laws around what a food business must do to legally sell. If you are not located in Washington, DC, we recommend reaching out to your local health department for more information. So with that, let’s explore how you can start selling your food product here in DC!

Step 1 - File Your FDA Registration Application

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the federal agency responsible for making sure consumers food and drugs are safe to consume. They do this by requiring all food businesses to follow specific food safety practices.  

Your registration with the FDA is the first step in the process because information provided by the FDA, once you are registered, will be used throughout the rest of the process.

The registration application itself is in 12 parts.  Much of the language is difficult to understand, but fortunately the FDA provides their step-by-step instructions on going through each portion of the application to make sure you understand what they are asking for, and fill out the form appropriately.  We highly suggest you reference this guide as you complete your registration!

Step 2 - Acquire Your Certificate of Good Standing

Just as it sounds, your Certificate of Good Standing signifies that you are in good standing with your incorporating state on things like documents filed, taxes, etc.  The certificate is issued by the state in which you have established your food business. Each state has its own approach to requesting and obtaining a Certificate of Good Standing, so we advise a web search for “(Your State of Establishment) Certificate of Good Standing” to find the necessary steps.  For our businesses who establish in Delaware, the government uses this page to facilitate requests for their Certificate of Good Standing.

Step 3 - File Your Foreign Registration Statement (If Not a Business Established in DC)

Foreign in this sense does not mean from outside the United States, but outside of Washington, DC.  If you are a business that was established outside the District of Columbia, you will need to file a Foreign Registration Statement (FN-1) with the DC government to signify you are an entity the DC government recognizes as a legitimate business that can operate in the District.

To complete your FN-1, you need to complete the Foreign Registration Statement Form and submit the completed form in one of three ways: 

  1. Online via DCRA’s CorpOnline Portal

  2. By Mail: Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Corporations Division, PO Box 92300, Washington, DC 20090

  3. In person at the DCRA  

Within the form, there are a few terms you’ll want to know before completing the application:

  • Governor: List yourself (the business owner) as the authorized person/Governor

  • Registered Agent: You are your own registered agent for Washington, D.C.

  • Principle Address: This is your address in the state you formed your business

Step 4 - Complete Your Sales and Use New Business Registration (FR-500), and File for your Sales and Use Exemption

After you’ve been recognized as a business in DC, your next step is to register to sell your food product within the District.  You do so by completing your FR-500, which is your sales and use new business registration.  By registering, you are filing to be an approved business that sells directly to consumers. Think of farmer’s markets, food trucks, or any other events where you are selling directly to the person that is consuming your food. 

Once your FR-500 registration has been processed, you need to file for your sales and use exemption (FR-164).  This is for any situation where you are not selling directly to the end consumer like when you sell to a retailer or a distributor that then resells your product. In these cases, if you have your sales and use exemption, you do not need to pay sales tax. For more information and a guide on how to complete your FR-164, check out their link here.

Step 5 - Acquire Your Clean Hands Certificate

Similar to the Certificate of Good Standing, your next step is acquiring your Clean Hands Certificate from the DC government to acknowledge that you are in good standing with the District. The certification means you do not owe more than $100 to DC, and that your food business registration paperwork has been done accurately and completely.

Currently, the application for your Clean Hands Certificate can be accessed on this DC Office of Tax and Revenue page.  However, after March 31, 2020, the application will be streamlined through the site.

Step 6 - Obtain Your Certificate of Liability Insurance 

A Certificate of Liability Insurance (COI) is a simple form issued by your insurance company. It includes the types of coverage, the issuing insurance company, your policy number, the named insured, the policy’s effective dates, and the types and dollar amount of limits and deductibles.

The COI gives you certain minimal coverage: general liability insurance, workers compensation, and employee liability insurance. Both distributors and retailers require a COI in order to work with them. When choosing your coverage, you should cover up to $1,000,000 in Phase Two: Product Market Fit. When filling out your workers compensation, Union Kitchen should not be included as we are not working for your company. Please view our Supplier Directory Workbook to see our recommended insurance options. 

Step 7 - Obtain Your Food Safety Manager License

Now that you’ve been recognized as a business in the District and they have certified that you are in good standing, it’s time to get into the more food-specific portions of licensing your food business.  The first step is obtaining your Food Safety Manager’s License (FSML). Your FSML certifies that you are aware and will comply with food safety best practices and can manage teams to the same standard. 

By using this link, you can register for a course and test online.  Once you have completed the test and receive your ServSafe certificate saying you passed, you’ll then need to upload that certificate to the DC DOH Online Portal to obtain your license. Once you create an account and log in on the portal, select the Certified Food Protection Manager Application. This will cost $35. 

Step 8 - File Your Food Manufacturer Application (Part One)

We’re almost there! To operate in a shared or commercial kitchen facility, every food business must have their food manufacturer application approved.  

Part one of this process is filing the application, linked here.  You will see that the information required is wide-ranging and in depth, including items like your ingredients lists and production process.  Fortunately, the Department of Health published a resource page to help you complete this application. We highly recommend using it!   

Of note, you will also need the Certificate of Occupancy from the shared kitchen facility you work in. This signifies that you are associated with the shared facility in which you can safely produce your product.  As you’ll see in the application, you’ll also need to send the completed application to the management of your shared kitchen facility for their signature.

This application will be submitted through the same online portal you submitted your Food Safety Manager License. 

Step 9 - Schedule and Complete Your Inspection with DC Department of Health (Part Two)

Part two of your food manufacturer application, once the paperwork has been approved, is scheduling your inspection with the Department of Health (DOH). We recommend coordinating this with the management of your shared kitchen facility so they can help facilitate and answer any facility specific questions.

During this inspection, you will sit down with the DOH inspector to talk through your production process and walk through the shared kitchen facility. The DOH inspector is checking to make sure your processes and the facility are up to local food safety code. 

Step 10 - File Your Basic Business License Form

It’s finally here! The last step is obtaining your Basic Business License.  As you will see, the BBL EZ-Form requires portions of each step above to complete, including the health inspection report you received from the DOH inspector during their visit. 

Final Thoughts

Food business requires extra licensing steps to make sure food producers are selling products that are food safe. This also means that the process can be long and challenging. To make the process as straightforward as possible, follow the steps above in the order they are presented!  Each step builds off of the previous ones. Going out of order will create more work for you.

We also recognize that the fees associated with each step are difficult to follow.  To assist on this front, visit the DCRA’s Corporation Division Fees page for LLCs.